EAST ROCKHILL — The state order mandating masking for children in schools also pertains to those attending board meetings, Pennridge School Board President Bill Krause said during board committee meetings held in the high school building Monday night.
But as with students, there are exemptions available, Krause said.
"The governor's order also provides for exemptions to the order and if you'd like to claim an exemption, please come up to the table, and fill out your exemption," he said. "Otherwise, I ask that you please wear a mask so that we can remain in compliance with the order."
Krause was one of three school board members wearing a mask during the meeting. Robert Cormack and Lisa Walters were the other two. Superintendent David Bolton and other district administrators also wore masks. Board Vice President Joan Cullen and board members Megan Banis-Clemens, Ronald Wurz and David Reiss did not wear masks.
Masks were available for persons who did not have one, Krause said.
After his statement, several people in attendance went to the table, apparently with exemption forms. Others in the audience were wearing masks.
The committee meetings Monday came in the wake of a Sept. 2 email to Pennridge district families signed by Krause and Cullen, stating board objections to the state mandate, saying that it strips local school boards from being able to adapt plans to particular conditions in the district and goes against the wishes of the majority of people in the Pennridge district.
"The Board believes that school districts should be locally controlled and that parents are the best judge of their childrens' medical and mental well-being," the email, which was also posted on the district's Facebook page, said.
An exemption form was attached to it.
The Pennridge email said the board will be considering joining lawsuits filed to block the mandate,
Perkasie resident John Seager has filed a complaint alleging that the email violated the state Sunshine Act because there was no public meeting or chance for public comment before the board email. Krause said the district cannot comment since it's a matter of litigation, but that the district thinks it complied with the law.
Supporters of the mask mandate say it helps slow the spread of COVID-19 and is particularly important in elementary schools, where students cannot get vaccinated. Opponents say the mandate takes away freedoms and question the effectiveness of the masks, particularly if not worn properly.
During public comment, resident Stephanie Regina said she felt "extreme disappointment" with the board's email.
"The fact that the board has encouraged Pennridge families to submit exemption forms that the majority are in no way eligible for is flat out dishonorable in a way that I should not have to explain to a room full of adults," she said.
The letter promoted chaos in the district, she said.
"Because of the lack of consistency in mitigation measures from one school, classroom and even individual to the next, every one in each school building is forced to literally wear their opinions on their faces," she said, "which essentially pits staff against staff, teacher against teacher, and worst of all, student against student."
Rather than showing unity and leadership, the email promoted more tension and discord, she said.
"In short, regardless of the different viewpoints on masks that we're all very well aware of, I found the board's response to the mandate to be lacking in professionalism, profoundly inflammatory, and worst of all, dishonorable," Regina said. "This school board does not represent the community that my husband and I believed in when we chose to raise our three kids here and I'd like to see you all step up and diplomatically advocate for unity and health and safety for everyone in Pennridge."
Both Regina and resident Catharine Carman questioned the email's statement that the majority of Pennridge residents opposed the mask mandate.
"I would like to know how the conclusion was reached about this so-called majority," Carman said.
"I do not recall being asked, nor do I know any of my acquaintances who were consulted," she said. "I would venture a guess that the vocal mob was considered the majority. I am not sure that this group constitutes a majority."
In a Sept. 10 message to chief school administrators, the state Department of Education clarified that there are exceptions to the state mandate that face masks be worn in schools, but it "is not a mask optional policy."
"Any school entity simply permitting a parent's sign-off without evidence that the student has a medical or mental health condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering is not in compliance with the Order," PDE said.
Some school districts, including Pennridge and Souderton Area, have allowed parents and staff members to sign exemption forms without requiring a doctor's note. Prior to the state mandate, both districts had approved masks being optional.
The PDE message said school districts should follow established processes for determining student eligibility to be exempted from being required to wear a face covering.
"There are exceptions to the Order; however, a parent's opposition to the Order is not one of them," the PDE said.
The exemption forms for both the Souderton Area and Pennridge districts require the parents of students or staff members applying for the exemption to check off one of four reasons for the exemption: medical condition, including respiratory issues that impede breathing; mental health condition; disability; or a medical condition or disability documented in existing education plans.
This story was updated to include additional information.